Teaching Comparative Government and Politics

Thursday, March 15, 2018

Wishful thinking

It wasn't long ago that "prosperity created democracy" was an accepted truth in the West. So, if China was more and more economically successful, it would become more and more democratic.

I guess that assumption was wrong.

How the West got China wrong
LAST weekend China stepped from autocracy into dictatorship. That was when Xi Jinping, already the world’s most powerful man, let it be known that he will change China’s constitution so that he can rule as president for as long as he chooses—and conceivably for life. Not since Mao Zedong has a Chinese leader wielded so much power so openly. This is not just a big change for China… but also strong evidence that the West’s 25-year bet on China has failed.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the West welcomed the next big communist country into the global economic order. Western leaders believed that giving China a stake in institutions such as the World Trade Organisation (WTO) would bind it into the rules-based system set up after the second world war (see Briefing). They hoped that economic integration would encourage China to evolve into a market economy and that, as they grew wealthier, its people would come to yearn for democratic freedoms, rights and the rule of law…

China has grown rich beyond anybody’s imagining. Under the leadership of Hu Jintao, you could still picture the bet paying off. When Mr Xi took power five years ago China was rife with speculation that he would move towards constitutional rule. Today the illusion has been shattered…

Start with politics. Mr Xi has used his power to reassert the dominance of the Communist Party and of his own position within it. As part of a campaign against corruption, he has purged potential rivals. He has executed a sweeping reorganisation of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), partly to ensure its loyalty to the party, and to him personally. He has imprisoned free-thinking lawyers and stamped out criticism of the party and the government in the media and online. Though people’s personal lives remain relatively free, he is creating a surveillance state to monitor discontent and deviance.

China used to profess no interest in how other countries run themselves, so long as it was left alone. Increasingly, however, it holds its authoritarian system up as a rival to liberal democracy…

The bet to embed markets has been more successful. China has been integrated into the global economy. It is the world’s biggest exporter, with over 13% of the total…

Yet China is not a market economy and, on its present course, never will be. Instead, it increasingly controls business as an arm of state power. It sees a vast range of industries as strategic. Its “Made in China 2025” plan, for instance, sets out to use subsidies and protection to create world leaders in ten industries, including aviation, tech and energy, which together cover nearly 40% of its manufacturing…

And China uses business to confront its enemies. It seeks to punish firms directly, as when Mercedes-Benz, a German carmaker, was recently obliged to issue a grovelling apology after unthinkingly quoting the Dalai Lama online…

This “sharp power” in commerce is a complement to the hard power of armed force. Here, China behaves as a regional superpower bent on driving America out of East Asia…

What to do? The West has lost its bet on China, just when its own democracies are suffering a crisis of confidence…

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